Weekly ministerial press briefings good, but let nobody abuse them

For the first time Cabinet ministers will start addressing weekly press conferences.

For the first time Cabinet ministers will start addressing weekly press conferences.

By and large, the move is positive and underlines the government’s willingness to open up by embracing the culture of transparency and accountability.

Following the historic 2003 multiparty democratic elections which kept the RPF leadership in control, one might only say that regular press briefings have only come a little bit too late. As the English say, better late than never.

This programme kicked off on the Sunday September 9. From a general perspective, the underlying intentions are good.

As to whether the programme will benefit more the government or media practitioners or the general public, it is another issue all together.

No doubt, the government will benefit through popularising its policies and activities, setting the record straight whenever it deems so in the event where it was publicly offended by anybody, being a journalist or the so-called opposition politicians in the west.

I refer to those critics-for-the-sake-of-it self-exiles as the so-called opposition because at no one time have I heard any of them genuinely presenting a national agenda apart from trashing what has been brought about by the government in power, something that the rest of the world has by far upheld and highly recognised Kigali and President Paul Kagame in particular, for.

Back to the point, such press briefings will help compliment the monthly presidential press conferences. Sometimes we have had some journalists innocently, though unwarranted, asking the president cheap questions concerning small things like chicken, instead of putting pertinent questions to the head of state.

It should not go without saying that for the president to take it upon himself to address the press every month with his ministers having no such arrangement, it was a shame. It was a veiled message by the ministers that they are unconcerned with the public being uninformed or misinformed about government business.

It was only the president recognising the media as the fourth estate with the will to always update the electorate on issues of national interest. No such briefings have been there in any of the ministries and other State organs.

Over a year ago, the ministries of Justice and Internal Security jointly with the Judiciary initiated a media briefing every fortnight, but that died out shortly after its starting off. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the practice was an individual affair and not institutional initiative since it vanished after the then Justice Minister Edda Mukabagwiza and Justice Ministry’s Secretary General Johnstone Busingye were assigned other duties.

That is one of the biggest problems with our officials. Individual leaders initiate things and fail to entrench them into the institutions they lead.

But more to be held accountable are those leaders that remained behind or those that replaced the aforementioned two officials, who never continued the briefings nor came out to tell the public why they suspended them.

Apart from the government, the weekly ministerial press briefings will benefit the media in a sense that journalists will hopefully become more informed about government business. They will be able to ask a panel of Cabinet ministers what the government has to say on given issues.

By doing so, it will be the government’s hope that some sections of our media that do not bother to observe such journalistic basics as crosschecking their ‘facts’ with the government, will finally have minimum phrases of ‘when contacted for a comment, the ‘official’ could not answer their cellular phone.”

The briefings will become a forum for journalists to ensure that the other side of the story (the government – which in most cases has been deprived of its right to have a say on damaging allegations) is duly relayed to the public. All these advantages, will benefit members if the public, who are the ultimate consumers of news items.

The move will also increasingly inculcate the culture of openness and flexibility on the part of Cabinet ministers, most of whom are known for being media shy and in some cases anti-journalists.

Some of these ministers hide behind flimsy and misconceived reasons to cover up their own inefficiencies.

While some intentionally choose to scare away the media for reasons best known to them, there could be others doing it out of ignorance and inexperience in dealing with the media.
However, these ministerial press briefings should not be abused as it turned out on their maiden day.

That day, the ministers that addressed the press used that forum to gang up against the media, with some using the opportunity, to attract public sympathy in the wake of corruption allegations against them.

They succeeded in misguiding their colleagues into portraying journalists as a bunch of irresponsible people who report with a malicious agenda.

During that function, Internal Security Minister Musa Fazil Harerimana probably made the most regrettable comments from a senior government official in as many years.

He threatened that ‘the government’ would force journalists to name people that gave them what he called secret government documents. No wonder international critics jumped on that to try to authenticate their claims for lack of a free press in Rwanda.

His utterances were not only damaging to the nation and to himself as a Cabinet minister, but also depicted him as a bully politician.

But as President Kagame told journalists on September 10, the minister’s statement in one way helped people to understand his thoughts. Predictably, the president was not amused by Harerimana’s statement, and reiterated that only the courts of law can compel a journalist to reveal their sources, and only if and when deemed necessary.

Hon. Harerimana, as a senior politician, I don’t think it is in your best interest or in the government’s to create the false impression that the government is hostile to the press.

I guess you leant a lesson or two.

Ministers should do enough homework on what to tell the public before hand.

The other unfortunate thing that transpired at the first ministerial weekly press conference is that all the four ministers that were on the panel apparently connived to defend and cover up individuals, which was contrary to the motives of the function.

They appeared determined to mount collective defence, instead of explaining (or defending for that matter) government policies and practices as a matter of principle.

If an individual minister feels that he has been unfairly attacked by a media outlet, the onus lies on him or her to come out and defend themselves other than hiding behind the government.

A minister ‘under attack’ in the media has a monopoly of information on those reports, and thus should convene a separate press conference and refute the reports, without dragging in other ministers, and trying to link accusations against them with those against other ministers.

Otherwise, the whole idea of these well-intentioned press briefings will have suffered from the onset if individual ministers hijack them and try to shake off their alleged individual crimes.

The writer is The New Times’ News Editor

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